The balance of power in Iraqi Kurdistan may be on the brink of change. On Monday, a leading member of the Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) announced that his party had reached a preliminary agreement, to be signed on Tuesday, with the Gorran party. According to the deal, the two will merge in parliament and run on a joint ticket during the next elections. Given the stops and starts that define Iraqi Kurdish politics, another agreement between parties may seem like more of the same political jockeying. But the merger stands to make a meaningful impact not only on Iraqi Kurdistan but also on its relations with Turkey and Iran.
The potential merger is really more of a reunion. Until 2009, Gorran's leader, Nawshirwan Mustafa, served as the PUK's deputy secretary general. Then, ahead of parliamentary elections, he broke away and started a new party. Though his platform emphasized fighting corruption and strengthening democratic institutions, Mustafa also opposed his former party's coalition with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). In forming Gorran, Mustafa hoped to challenge the coalition parties' long-standing duopoly. At the same time, Gorran's crusade against corruption was also meant to undermine the patronage networks that sustained the two parties.
Those networks include an important international component. The KDP has strong economic and political ties to Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), while the PUK's primary benefactor is Iran. As planned, Gorran's emergence weakened the PUK, thereby diminishing Iran's influence within the Kurdistan Regional Government. Turkey, on the other hand, has expanded its economic activities in Iraqi Kurdistan since Gorran formed. In recent years, the AKP, led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has cultivated a pragmatic and constructive relationship with Massoud Barzani, the leader of the KDP and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Turkish companies invest in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Turkey provides export routes for Kurdish oil — and perhaps natural gas in the future — in exchange for security cooperation from the KDP in targeting members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party militant group.
Gorran, though it formed in reaction to the PUK, has focused most of its criticism on the ruling KDP party and, in particular, on Barzani. In fact, Gorran protesters demanded Barzani's resignation in late 2015. The protesters became violent, and many of them attacked KDP offices, leading to the deaths of several KDP members. In response, Barzani dismissed three ministers as well as the speaker of the legislature — all of whom were members of Gorran. Since then, the Kurdistan Regional Government has been gridlocked. The KDP has ruled the roost, while Mustafa has reportedly been in Europe for seven months, ostensibly on medical leave.
Mustafa returned to the Kurdistan Regional Government on April 28 and began the negotiations that eventually produced Monday's deal. Since its inception, Gorran has had to collaborate with the PUK to accomplish any substantive agenda, despite holding more seats in parliament. This is because the peshmerga forces, the Kurdistan Regional Government's military arm, command the real power in Iraqi Kurdistan. Since the peshmerga is divided along party lines between the PUK and KDP, Gorran, though popular during the elections, cannot effectively wield power without the support of the PUK — and its peshmerga reinforcements.
Of course, for Barzani and the KDP, this renewed alliance is cause for concern. PUK leaders have tried to allay the KDP's fears, insisting that the arrangement will not hurt their relationship. Nonetheless, the terms of the PUK-Gorran agreement, which promises to reinstate the parliament (almost certainly including the ejected Gorran ministers) and return presidential elections to its control, already appear to be at odds with the KDP's interests. Under the new model, Barzani would likely be unable to secure another term.
Indeed, the merger is sure to curtail the KDP's power and could even result in the party's exclusion from government. Although the KDP has 38 seats in parliament, the PUK and Gorran collectively have 42. Even if the KDP were to refuse to comply with the PUK and Gorran, it could probably work with other Kurdish parties to attain the other 14 seats required to form a government.
And this changing dynamic could have profound effects. Because the Kurdistan Regional Government also has representatives in Iraq's parliament, the agreement will affect politics in Baghdad as well as in Arbil. Moreover, the alliance will likely delay the independence referendum, which Barzani has been championing, as the KDP jostles for influence. After all, political infighting does not lend itself to creating a unified independent state.
Far more important, however, is the impact that this political shift could have on Iran and Turkey's game of tug-of-war in Iraqi Kurdistan. Though the KDP's leadership fostered close relations with Turkey, the PUK-Gorran alliance will likely boost Iran's role in the Kurdistan Regional Government. If the KDP loses its sway in the government, Turkey may be less inclined to continue to invest in the region or offer economic aid. Even so, Turkey knows that reducing its support will enable Iran, already dominant in Baghdad, to increase its clout in the region even more. As Turkey and Iran compete for power in the Kurdistan Regional Government through their respective affiliate parties, the PUK-Gorran deal could push Tehran ahead in the race.